The absence of events and a winter of disconnect
June, July and August 2020 will be long remembered as the summer that was starved of festivals. However, the winter months are perhaps those when the absence of organised gatherings is being felt most acutely. This season usually features a range of festivals which help people through the darkness and low temperatures of the northern hemisphere. Many celebrate light and have religious derivations, with light representing the triumph of good over evil in many faiths. Celebrations featuring candlelight, lanterns and fire are common, and are now supplemented with contemporary light festivals – secular occasions featuring electric illumination and light art.
In England, November is the month most associated with light festivals and fireworks because of Diwali and Bonfire Night. The former has become a much more prominent festival in recent years, particularly in London, due to flourishing communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Following a similar trajectory to Christmas, Diwali is now more universally celebrated, rather than observed only by those of a particular faith. This is a particularly relevant festival for the Festspace project because of its aim to promote unity in the midst of diversity. Bonfire Night is a very different occasion, one that commemorates a period of deep division and disharmony. This event is rooted in sectarian English history and ‘celebrates’ the foiled attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. It normally involves communal bonfires and fireworks displays which are often staged in public parks.
The largest free fireworks display in London takes place on Blackheath, a large public space in South East London which provides the focus for a series of Festspace blog posts. This event normally hosts over 80,000 people who converge on the open heath from all over London. There is always a special atmosphere, not just during the display, but also before and after as people walk to and from Blackheath through dimly lit streets. As various authors have pointed out, events at night play a particularly important role in nurturing communitas: the darkness acts as an equalising factor, blurring people’s identities (and status) and facilitating different atmospheres.
The Blackheath fireworks display is free, unlike many similar displays in London’s public spaces which now charge entry fees. The loss of the free event in Brockwell Park is much lamented. Admission fees (£7) were introduced here in 2014 and then, following poor ticket sales, the event was handed over to a private company and run as a commercial event. The Blackheath equivalent – which normally takes place on the first Saturday in November – is the area’s most significant annual gathering. It is funded by the two Councils that are responsible for maintaining this open space, Greenwich and Lewisham, and by sponsorship revenues. However, public funding for free events is increasingly precarious. For the 2019 edition, Lewisham Council launched a crowd funding campaign to help subsidise the £40,000 it had previously contributed towards the costs of staging it. Many fireworks displays are cross-subsidised by the income councils earn from commercial events, and these income streams have collapsed in 2020. There are now reports that due to local government budget cuts, the Blackheath fireworks display may not return until 2023.
Bonfire Night 2020 coincided with a particularly problematic time in the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. With case numbers rising, England is currently enduring a second lockdown and not only are large gatherings banned, but non-essential shops are closed and inter-household mixing is prohibited. As a result, people are struggling to stay connected and associated mental health problems seem to be the inevitable consequence. The lack of public festivity during the pandemic has served to highlight how important free, community events are: they connect people and allow them to feel part of a wider community. This is particularly true in the winter, when loneliness and isolation are even bigger problems. Over the summer, some people were relieved that urban green spaces were free of events so they could be enjoyed by those seeking fresh air and exercise. But in the winter, the lack of gatherings has been keenly felt, and there are now understandable concerns about the well-being of citizens. November festivals have been cancelled, but it remains to be seen what the UK government will do about Christmas. Difficult choices will need to be made between suppressing the pandemic and allowing people some scope to come together. Whichever is prioritised, it promises to be a bleak mid-winter.